January 2014


Natum Natum (Sabaragamuwa Dancing)
January 2014




Men and women dancing in unison to the sound of drums

Words Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane


Dance is an ancient art form of Sri Lanka that was nurtured with devotion and performed with reverence as it was often a celebration to the pantheon of gods. The captivating sound of the drum beat that accompanied dancing, provided the space for the energetic expression of nuances that were symptomatic of the refinement and the way of life of a people.


Sri Lanka has three dance traditions: Up-country, Low-country and Sabaragamuwa. They are all identified with a locality. Of the three, only the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition has remained unchanged over time. What is defined today as culture and tradition has been tremendously influenced by foreign invaders and other external interactions and these once ‘strange' characteristics have blended in well so as to obliterate any distinction.


"Up-country and Low-country dances have evolved to demonstrate features of alien and invading cultures. Such extraneous characteristics were fused gradually and these dances also evolved into their modern forms progressively. Such changes were incorporated, sometimes owing to compulsions from reigning kings who were foreigners. Thus Up-country and Low-country dances have changed their orientation as a performing 
art for entertainment purposes. The sacredness that was associated with our dances lost their purity eventually. But, it was not so with the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition, which is lesser known because it was safeguarded by our ancestors as a form of ceremonial worship to the gods," said Professor Wickramasinghe Bandara, Head of the Sabaragamuwa Department of the University of Visual and Performing Arts.


The Sabaragamuwa dance tradition is fundamentally a depiction of the rite of worship. The dances portray rituals intended for the pantheon of gods. The Sabaragamuwa dances are distinguishable because they are sacrosanct performances to invoke blessings from the gods, so that the goodness that comes forth from them will overcome evil.


Professor Bandara substantiated the claim that the Sabaragamuwa dance tradition is the oldest and authentic dance form in this country with an elaborate narrative. Accordingly, when Prince Vijaya landed in Sri Lanka, it had been inhabited by people belonging to the tribes of Yaksha and Nagha. He married Kuveni who belonged to the Yakshas. But, when Vijaya turned against his wife's people, they fled to the precincts of the Sabaragamuwa jungles, known then as ‘Saparap Grama' (four villages) that had encompassed Ratnapura, Balangoda, Kalawana and Uva-Wellassa.


These people took with them the skills and practises of the ritualistic dances that they had been hitherto performing. Thus, their traditional dances became synonymous with their adopted place of residence. 
The Sabaragamuwa dance tradition is described as the oldest dance form, because its forebearers were the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka before the arrival of Vijaya. Prince Vijaya's arrival and reign was succeeded by countless more foreign invasions, culminating with the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, which eventually led to a great number of foreign characteristics merging with the local culture, including dance. Fortunately, these people who had the masterly skill of dance in ancient Sri Lanka before the arrival of marauding foreign forces, practised them within the confines of their forced exile in Sabaragamuwa, thereby nurturing them in their original form and preventing any dilution.


Professor Bandara explained that the Sabaragamuwa dance form is enacted in three ritualistic performances commonly known as shanthikarma (blessings/sanctification). The performance, the actions and singing invoke divine favour and appeal to the gods to look with kindness. The madu shanthikarma is performed to the gods seeking their compassion and munificence, to bring in good and for a good cause. The thovil shanthikarma is a ritual intended to ward off demons and evil spirits from an individual or location. Bali shanthikarma is associated with astrology, which Sri Lankans have a strong belief in as having influence on human affairs and is intended to appease the negative effects brought about by planetary changes that cause unexplained situations to bear upon peoples' lives. A shanthikarma can be performed to invoke blessings on the country, a pregnant woman or for prosperity in general.

White and red had been predominant colours used for costumes as these sacred performances had taken place at dusk continuing late into the night
Unlike the Up-country and Low-country dances, Sabaragamuwa dances were performed by members of the upper castes and have been male dominated, explained Professor Bandara. Since it was spiritual in nature, women with their so called physical impurities were disallowed from performing such sacred rites. Therefore, it is not surprising that the costumes used in these performances had been designed for men. White and red had been predominant colours used for costumes as these sacred performances had taken place at dusk continuing late into the night. It was a time of lanterns and bonfires. These colours had been chosen deliberately to allow better vision as at that time of the day light was faint. It definitely may have added much vivacity to the gyrating performances of the master performers.


The main instrument used in performing the Sabaragamuwa dances is a drum popularly known as the ‘Davula'. This is complemented by other paraphernalia such as head gear, clay pots, masks, fire, coconut palms and flower; in fact it is not only the dance that demonstrates its exclusivity, but the entire routine is distinguished by the clothes, music, instruments, songs, sacred items, decor, drama and parades.


The Sabaragamuwa dance tradition is an outstanding manifestation of an era that once was, but was wiped out. It nevertheless testifies to the determination of a people and the pride in their heritage.


Photographs University of Visual and Performing Arts

 

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    The attires are said to resemble that of god Saman, around whose shrine in Sabaragamuwa the fleeing locals had settled

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    Stage performance of Sabaragamuwa dance, accompanied by 'davul' players in the background

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    The emergence of women into the amphitheatre of Sabaragamuwa dance tradition

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    The sanctimonious 'shanthikarma' displayed as a performing art

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    A display of energy as dancers do the typical 'whirl' in harmonious sequence

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    The white cloth, the red cloth, the jacket, the forehead band and the frills are distinguishable characteristics of Sabaragamuwa dances

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